We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.

Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain. — Pope Francis, Gaudete et exultate 

I have read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exultate, so many times since its publication I have lost count. Each time back, I always discover a fresh set of insights.

It is the the first time the Magisterium has produced a whole document, written in a very accessible style, on the call to holiness (especially) for the laity whose home is the secular world. Certainly other documents have touched the subject, but there has been no single sustained reflection on the stunning development of Vatican II:

All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness, as such, a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society (LG #40).

The “highest” vocational form of Christian life is not consecrated life or ordained ministry, but the call to holiness. All other measurements of vocational height in Christianity, important as they are, submit to the supremacy of love of God-neighbor, which is the soul and summit of holiness. In assessing the holy “heights” of priest, Levite and Samaritan-layman in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus exalts to the highest summit the one who stooped lowest in mercy.

Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave. — Matt. 20:26-27

This is the greatness, to me, of Pope Francis’ exhortation. It democratizes holiness, with his characteristic realist, practical and earthy flair. It has the wisdom of a seasoned churchman who knows well the weal and warts of Catholic culture, who has a refined grasp of the principles of discerning God’s will in daily life, who is able to get at the simplicity of faith in the midst of the complexity of life, who loves to draw from diverse sources of wisdom that demonstrate the kaleidoscopic character of catholic Truth, and who locates joy, again and again, as the preeminent sign of spiritual vitality. #32:

Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy.

I must say, with a bit of weariness, in the midst of an ecclesial culture rife with cutting bitterness, caustic cynicism and joyless anger, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. I said in a class I taught on this document in May, “If you want to rightly assess the teaching of Pope Francis, first spend a full year immersed in this document, striving to live its vision out to the limits of your strength, and only then dare to return to his pontificate and critically reflect.”

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

“Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

If one doesn’t have a sense of humor, it’s very difficult to be happy; it’s necessary not to take oneself too seriously. Humor also helps us to be in good humor, and if we are in good humor it’s easier to live with others and with ourselves. — Pope Francis

Once when I was agonizing over family of origin issues, a friend of mine who has a quick and sometimes sardonic sense of humor, said: “All of our family dysfunctions will be the very source of endless comedic laughter as they are healed by the mercy of God.” A lovely play on Psalm 126:1-2:

When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage,
it seemed like a dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
on our lips there were songs.

His words were, at that moment in my life, a healing balm.

My wife says she can always tell when I have been overwhelmed by some difficulty, and lost proper perspective, “because you stop making me laugh.” Humor exposes life’s absurdities and contradictions, plays on the expected and the unexpected, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Humor surprises and safely raises taboo topics, releasing built-up pressure. And it can have a prophetic force, exposing evil or injustice or incompetence. The art of funny requires a keen sense of timing, context, audience, the ability to tell a story, etc.

Of course, humor can be used for good or ill, to lift up or tear down, to humble or to shame, to lighten up or mock, to reset perspective or desecrate, to tell the truth or deceive. Humor can help us face reality more honestly, but it can also help us to avoid dealing with reality.

But as I seek to define humor, I am warned by G.K. Chesterton, “It is thus a term which not only refuses to be defined, but in a sense boasts of being indefinable; and it would commonly be regarded as a deficiency in humour to search for a definition of humour.” Kind of like having to explain a joke to someone after you’ve told it.

Good humor is, as the saying goes, “the best medicine.” Psychologically, physiologically, spiritually. Which is why quite often my bedtime readings are comedians Dave Barry and Jim Gaffigan (we will see Gaffigan performing live in a few days!). I love to watch funny movies, TV shows or stand up comedy routines. Occasionally, I (re)subject my kids to one of the (tragically) 6 episodes from the TV series Police Squad. But my favorite sitcom, and my wife’s, is the Goldbergs. My favorite TV series ever.

I love to laugh, and to make others laugh.

I have always thought we should add humor as an eighth “spiritual work of mercy,” right after “comfort the sorrowful,” and believe that the ability to make others laugh is a charism of the Spirit that, at Pentecost, was meant to go with the Church to the ends of the earth. In the words of the sage Dr. Seuss, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

I frequently ask St. Philip Neri (patron of comedians) and St. Thomas More to obtain for me this gift so I can, above all, make my wife laugh.

A Typical Day in the Life of…

Happy Ordinary Time!

It’s been, and continues to be, a very busy stretch. Amid the press of various work commitments, I drew in some fresh Spring air at our daughter Maria’s (and Ashley’s) High School graduation on Monday! Above is photo of the Neal Family, afterwards. Tears, smiles, joy, sorrow, but mostly overflowing gratitude.

The next day after graduation, Maria edited a new (and really fun) genre Mashley video. Since this Blog really serves as a cover for promoting my family, I will slip her video in here. I am hoping to resume the ruse this weekend and put some new theological posts out.

Pastry Chefs & Prostitutes [& Theology]

Today, I am simply posting a dear friend’s commencement speech from last week at our Seminary’s graduation. Hi name is Austin Ashcraft, and he gave me permission to post his brother’s phone recording (text here).

In just a few minutes, Austin captured a dynamic vision of theological education that offers a real response to the aggression of atheistic secularism with an equally impassioned theistic secularism, i.e. that prepares students to hand over a God who “so loved the world” in (an uncaged) Christ.

Let me tell you, the quality of seminarians and laity who graduated this year makes me realize the New Evangelization is in full throttle in the Deep South.

Sigrid, Raw

[had this unfinished post in my drafts. i recall it was fun to write. felt inspired to post. be back next weekend.]

If I show I’m fragile
Would you go ahead and find somebody else?
And if I act too tough, know that I care ’bout you
I’m honest, no offense

No, I could never fake it
Like players always playing
Arrest me if I hurt you
But no apologies for being me

I am now a huge Sigrid fan, thanks to my daughter who introduced me to her last week. Sigrid is a Norwegian singer and songwriter who just hit the pop scene last year.

I like her because she is, as Maria says it, “authentic, honest and quirky.” Her music is not hyper-produced, the lyrics are plain, direct and reflective, and her look is natural. I hope she retains all of that.

I especially liked the song Raw, because it made me think of my wife. Patti, for those who know her, pulls no punches. What you see is what you get. She is truthful in the extreme, which is what I have always loved most about her. Whether it’s pointing out that I need to take a second shower before giving an evening lecture, calling me on the carpet for some inconsistency, or grabbing me by the tie and saying (when she saw I was filling my early morning prayer time with work), “I need you to be a man of prayer!” — she is, for me, grace in my face.

Patti is truthiness with lipstick and high heels. Once when I praised her for this quality, she said, “Well, when we got married I did say ‘I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad!'”

But the greatest part of her honesty is that it goes both ways — she welcomes it as much as she offers it. And that is something I find very rare in life, people who invite and welcome honest feedback. She will often say, “You don’t need to protect my feelings. I need to hear your perspective.”

But at the bottom of all such radical honesty — nakedness before the other — is unconditional trust. There can be no real honesty if you don’t have that in a relationship, don’t have the mutual understanding, guarded by love, sealed by a promise that the other person will never use your weaknesses against you; will never intend you harm; will never betray you; will never leave you, no matter what. Only when love is steeled by such a promise can you really get down and dirty, dig deep, be wholly free to be yourself and allow the other to be the same.

Of course, even with the best of intentions, without ill will, we do hurt each other. Reality. But even here the commitment to honesty rescues us, as I know I can admit my failure, my sin against her with unvarnished honesty and she will receive that and forgive me. Will give forgiveness which is not owed or demanded, but freely given to an unworthy recipient.

And let me say that kind of forgiveness brings you to your knees. Breaks your stony heart. Calls you out of your mediocrity toward the better. Honest love is a costly love, is a paschal love “caught up into divine love [that] leads the spouses to God with powerful effect.”*

So yes, it’s true. She, I just want to be raw.

*Gaudium et Spes #48